The Hunger Games
I’m officially spearheading a petition to rename Don’t Starve. After putting more than a dozen hours into Klei’s spooky survival roguelike, not once have I succumbed to starvation. Sure, I’ve died plenty—more often and more embarrassingly than I’m willing to recount in full—but every single time I’ve been frozen or bitten or bludgeoned into the afterlife, it’s been on a full stomach. I’m starting to suspect that being well fed isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
No, in my experience, it would’ve been much more accurate to call the game Don’t Attack Bees. Or Don’t Build Your Camp Next to a Spider Nest. Or Don’t Try to Kill a Ghost With a Spear, You Idiot. Or Don’t Pick That Flower Because It’s Actually a Giant Worm That Will Kill You in One Hit. You know, something snappy.
Nomenclature aside, though, there’s a lot to love about Don’t Starve. Its aesthetics are breezily macabre, a sort of Edward Gorey for the Hot Topic generation. Creatures are adorable and creepy in equal measure, and frequently both at the same time. Instead of voices, the pencil-scratch characters speak with untuned instruments, like adults in a Peanuts cartoon. There’s all the dark quirk of a teenage goth’s notebook scrawls with none of the desperation. It’s trying hard, yes, but it’s succeeding.
But the bigger accomplishment, by far, is the way the game’s world continuously unfolds itself to you. You’re dropped into a patch of randomly generated wilderness with no explanation or tutorial beyond a few onscreen button prompts inviting you to investigate further. As you start to gather resources, you discover a robust crafting system that opens up intuitive and equally deep ways to interact with the environment. You spot animals, then monsters, then occult structures and artifacts that hint at something sinister beneath the surface. Your only real goal, as you quickly discern, is to survive by managing three straightforward meters for your hunger, health, and sanity.
As someone who completely missed out on the PC release last April, I knew almost nothing of Don’t Starve, and I’m fortunate for that ignorance. It meant my first forays into the game felt like genuine exploration, full of unexpected moments that upended what I thought I knew. The seasons changed for the first time, and suddenly my time-tested strategies fell apart. I tumbled into a cave, isolated from my meticulously tended camp, and inched forward unprepared into the blackness. I realized I could build a farm and quietly rejoiced as I harvested my first crop.
These minor but memorable triumphs are the best thing Don’t Starve has to offer. While there may be a persistent XP system, unlockable characters, and an eventual endgame, the real measure of progress is discovery. It’s learning how the systems interplay with one another and turning them to your advantage. It’s encountering a new monster or environment, sizing up your chances, and taking the plunge. It’s growth.
That’s ultimately Don’t Starve’s biggest problem. When you die, you’re forced to start over in a new world, but you haven’t unlearned anything from the last time. Discovery has no reverse gear. Altering the geography does nothing to change what you need, just what direction you need to walk in to find it.
As you find greater and greater successes, going back to square one becomes increasingly rote and bleak. Soon, it seems like the game is hiding all its interesting pieces from you behind a chest-high wall of fetch quests. You can see the fun, right there, just out of reach, but you can’t get back to it until you’ve gathered twigs and flint to make an axe and chopped down trees to hoard wood for the fire you need to survive the night and built a pickaxe to mine some gold for your research station and stockpiled meat and built a barricade and a hundred such trivial, tedious errands. It’s like some Bizarro World version of Minecraft where all the creative exuberance has been replaced by checklists.
Don’t Starve’s magic lies in conquering the unknown, and while those first few stumbling hours are indeed magical enough to warrant a go, they prove fleeting in the end. I’m reminded of an article I once read about chess grandmasters growing bored with the game, since their encyclopedic knowledge means nearly all matches play out as either an easy victory or a mundane stalemate. There’s a world of difference, it seems, between a rewarding learning curve and a rewarding doing curve.
Like Nethack, The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and other roguelikes I’ve enjoyed, Don’t Starve demands vigilance, patience, and cunning, but it also demands stamina. Too much, I think.
In those other games, each death spurns me on to begin anew, to play smarter and more skillfully. I swell with fool’s hope that this, this will be the time I finally triumph. Victory is my destiny, no matter how remote.
In Don’t Starve, I just sit there, heartbroken, staring at the screen and wondering if I’ve finally had enough.
|Developer: Klei Entertainment • Publisher: Klei Entertainment • ESRB: E10+ • Release Date: 1.7.2014|
Uncovering the secrets of Don’t Starve’s oppressive world is gratifying, but the basics of gameplay get too mindlessly repetitive once you’ve figured out what you’re doing.
|The Good||Allows you to learn the ropes in an organic, rewarding fashion few games manage.|
|The Bad||Loses some of its luster with each passing playthrough.|
|The Ugly||Gentleman scientist Wilson with a beard. Craft that razor early, folks.|
|Don’t Starve is available on PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, and Linux. Primary version reviewed was for PS4.|